Battle Vixens (2003)

When a new female transfer student Sonsaku Hakufu arrives at Nanyo Academy and begins challenging everyone in the yard to fight, her cousin rushes in to help her before she causes serious damage. This is no ordinary school, and no ordinary world, as various individuals have an earring that contains the spirit of a legendary figure from the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history. The ditzy, upbeat protagonist is the spirit of a legendary warrior who loved fighting for its own sake and was a champion of the period. As the story progresses the characters find themselves involved in numerous fights with other students, replaying historic battles and attempting to avoid their fates.

Based on the manga by Yuji Shiozaki, and directed by Takashi Watanabe, the series contains many tropes from similar sexploitation series, going to almost any length to include upskirt shots of the girls, jiggling breasts, or sexually charged sequences. Each of the characters is given a unique personality though they remain largely surface level clichés. The conceit of the reincarnated spirits makes for an interesting story as the characters attempt to escape from their predestined paths, or relish following them. Those with knowledge or interest in this period of history may get more out of the series than the casual viewer, as each episode ends with a brief historical note on who the characters are meant to represent and what happened to them. The fight scenes are good and the humour, though broad, is entertaining. The major weakness is in the story that never really grabs your attention in the way it should. With the characters established it too often feels like a sequence of battles without a meaningful purpose. We see the rise and fall of several of the characters, but despite engaging fights you never feel a sense of danger. This is partly down to the outlandish premise that significantly impacts the ability to relate with anyone.

The central theme of the film is the idea of fate and escaping from it. Being reincarnated the characters are essentially living out another life in the modern era. This also conjures up the notion of a cyclical history where humanity is doomed to repeat its former errors and violence is an ineradicable human trait. By the end the characters do manage to change their course, but this raises the question of why they couldn’t have done this earlier. Despite a weak story the series moves quickly and does feature some exciting sequences and humour. Its main flaw is that, much like the characters, it feels as though it is going through the motions with few surprises.

Azumi 2: Death or Love (2006)

Azumi 2 picks up following the events of the first film, with our assassin attempting to kill the final person on her hit-list: Sanada Masakuki. Azumi and her companion from the first film, Nagara, are joined by a group of ninjas. One of the ninjas, Kozue, turns out to be a spy who is intent on preventing Azumi carrying out her mission.

Azumi 2 begins with no exposition about events of the first film, assuming that the audience is aware of Azumi’s mission from that film. It also introduces a character who looks identical to the friend she killed in that movie. Although continuing the story, this film feels very different. The direction here is clearer, with less hazy, poorly lit night scenes, and more sensible camerawork. There are occasional  zoom-ins or comic-book style action scenes (such as speeding up footage), which still don’t work here as they didn’t in the first film, however overall the film has a much more consistent tone and style, with less of the ridiculous humour of the first in favour of more serious character development. The costumes and sets are good again and there are some really stand out action sequences.

This film deals more with Azumi coming to terms with the fact that she is a killer, and attempting to forgive herself for what she has done and is doing. The plot is a little thinner than the first, basically wrapping up the unfinished portion of that story, but this is definitely a worthy sequel, better in many ways than the original.

Dead or Alive: Final (2002)

Set in a future dystopia, “Dead or Alive: Final” is a speculative science-fiction involving replicants, totalitarian government and a nascent rebellion. Show Aikawa plays a replicant, imbued with powers of super-speed, able to catch bullets, and indestructible. He is taken in by a family who are fighting against the oppressive regime of a flamboyant dictator. The population are kept under control by being forced to take a pill that makes them infertile. It is suggested that procreation is no longer required in a world where replicants are prevalent. Riki Takeuchi plays a police officer who is attempting to root out and destroy the resistance fighters that threaten the dominance of the leader.

The third part of this trilogy is quite a departure from what has gone before. Being a future science-fiction it allows Takashi Miike to explore themes from a new perspective, by examining what a future Japan might look like. There is an international feel to the film, with Chinese and English spoken frequently alongside Japanese, in common with his previous work on the “Black Society Trilogy”. The idea of a population being kept in a state of oppression and forced to consume the birth control drug is a clear satire of Japan’s problems with population decline, subservience to government, and perhaps even the conservative values that typify modern society. A few of the elements may seem derivative, such as the idea of replicants, but there are definitely unique flourishes. The film is a little uneven in terms of the balance of comedy and drama. Usually, Miike is good at this, but here it is unclear what is parody and what is serious. This is partly due to the lack of money and resources to create an effective future world. The special effects are stretched to breaking point, especially towards the  end of the film. The ending is somewhat incomprehensible for another reason. It draws in scenes from the previous two “Dead or Alive” films that really have no place being here. While there are parallels between the films, sex, violence, crime, themes of childhood and fate, woven through each, and the main actors are the same, there is really little connecting them. It comes across as though the leads here are remembering past lives, but doesn’t provide the audience with enough to make any coherent point about the three films as a whole

There are some interesting ideas here, but a lot have been done before and better. The concept of replicants is raised though never fully addressed. This is exemplified in the scene where Riki Takeuchi discovers that his family are replicants. It should be a dramatic moment, but since the concept is only vaguely established in the world this revelation has little impact. The idea of a society struggling with a lack of reproduction, or the diminishment of the importance of sex and reproduction is likewise a fascinating avenue, but it seems the film always shies away from exploring anything in depth. Worth watching for a couple of standout scenes, and again capped with a bizarre, unforgettable ending, but doesn’t quite live up to the standard of the earlier films.

Dead or Alive 2: Birds (2000)

Two assassins meet unexpectedly when they are both contracted to kill the same man. After realising that they were actually childhood friends, they decide to escape from the city and return to the island where they were brought up, visiting a third friend who is now living there with his pregnant wife. After their respite the two decide to return to the metropolis and use their skills as professional killers to benefit orphans in the third world, by sending the money they make overseas. This soon brings them back into contact with the violent gangs they had previously escaped.

After the grotesque comedy of the first Dead or Alive film, this is a much more sedate affair. There is still puerile humour, sex, violence, and quirky storytelling with bizarre plot twists, but throughout is a strong central theme helped along by fantastic performances by Show Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi. The two actors this time play the assassins returning to their hometown, reliving former traumas and triumphs along with their old friend. Both are charismatic and it is good to see them getting more screen time together. The story meanders its way through their reminiscences and may not appeal to those fond of the more frenetic pace of the earlier film, but it does a much better job of creating likeable characters. Takashi Miike brings a visual flair and intelligence to the directing that keep things interesting. There are moments of pure cinema, such as when the characters sprout wings, one black, one white, or when we see feathers falling from nowhere after a murder, or when the characters transform into their childhood selves.

It may seem out of place to have a school play half-way through a film about hit-men, especially one that is juxtaposed with a sex scene and gangland murders in another part of the country, but it typifies what makes this movie great. By creating a powerful contrast between the placid life of the small island community with the horrors of inner-city crime we get a picture of divided characters, contract killers who still retain their basic humanity. The film is essentially about a loss of innocence as we see what these young boys have become, and their attempt to regain that through travelling back to their old town. The plot involving the two killers helping young children out with money through the proceeds of murder is a fairly pointed commentary on what is wrong with society, and done in a way that makes it seem like common sense (why not kill bad guys and give the money to helpless orphans?). It is great to see a film that has the confidence to tell its audience uncomfortable truths, while at the same time not being overly moralistic.

Crows Zero 2 (2009)

With the same cast and director as Crows Zero the style is consistent with the first film. This film introduces the Houzan gang, whom the Crows, following the murder of Houzan’s boss by an ex-student 2 years prior, are unwittingly drawn into war with. This time Selizawa and Genji must fight together against this new rival. There are also a few interesting new characters introduced.

The style is identical to the first, with the comedy and action set pieces expanded on. There is little to say about this film that couldn’t be said of the first. The new dynamic of a rival gang is exciting and the first half is fast paced with the usual blend of violence and humour. The second half is largely a single assault on the rival gang’s building. While the direction is fantastic and it’s broken up with memorable moments, it feels overdone at times.

Definitely worth watching if you enjoyed the first film as it rounds off the story with the boy’s graduating. A highly enjoyable comedy action film.

Based on a manga by Hiroshi Takahashi.